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Lawmakers propose fixes for testing and teaching

Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers think they came up with some solutions for a few of the state’s biggest education issues from the past year: testing, teacher hiring and keeping great teachers in the classroom.

A study committee, in fact, came up with 20 recommendations in all after a couple months of work.

But it remains to be seen how many of the 17 that made into the final report become actual bills during next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

In several cases, for example, the study committee ended up calling for, well, further study.

In all, 11 of the 20 recommendations dealt with teachers, four were centered on the state’s ISTEP test and two took up questions of whether the state should “pause” its A-to-F school letter grades for 2015.

Despite the large number of recommendations, they lacked solutions for some of the most hotly debated questions from last session. Indiana is still expected to move forward with a contract with British-based Pearson to write the 2016 ISTEP test, for example, rather than adopt a national test like the SAT for some students, as some legislators had called for.

There’s also no guarantee that anything will come of any of the proposals — nobody is bound to act on them.

Last year, preschool and disparities in discipline between white and minority students were topics of study, for example. But while preschool funding grew at the state and city level, few changes have been made to discipline processes.

For the big picture, read on about what proposals gained support and which were voted down. Then, check out our Storify at the very end for more detail on each vote and other happenings during the meeting.

Attracting and keeping teachers in Indiana schools

Perhaps the most bold recommendation called for new money — funds not already budgeted to schools and districts — to be used to increase salaries of teachers and other educators in the first 10 years of their careers. However, next year is not a budget year, meaning the legislature is very limited in how it could dole out any new funding.

The recommendation was passed by consent, meaning there was no vocal opposition, but some legislators, including Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, reminded the group to consider the needs of all teacher, not just ones early on in their careers.

“I also think back to a lot of that written testimony that was submitted by young teachers and people who are still in teacher training, and what impressed me is that they weren’t just looking at what am I going to get this year and next year,” Errington said. “But they were looking all the way down the road as to whether this is a viable profession.”

To that end, the group also supported recommendations that the General Assembly consider expanding the state’s loan forgiveness program for teachers who teach in higher-need subject or geographic areas, such as schools in rural parts of the state or struggling schools in urban centers.

Three of the proposals had more divided votes. A measure to study how teacher salaries for those teaching in shortage areas could be made more flexible passed 8-3, with Reps. Tony Cook, Dale DeVon and Rhonda Rhoads, all Republicans, voting no.

A proposal for changing how teacher benefit systems work passed 9-2, and one to consider additional funding for teacher training in schools and those pursuing master’s degrees passed 10-1.

Many of the recommendations centered on teacher pay and teacher mentorship programs received broad support from legislators in the committee and passed unanimously.

Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that mentoring for new teachers and incentives for teachers to enter areas that tend to see shortages, such as math, science, special education and foreign language, are important to combating issues some Indiana districts are having finding enough qualified candidates.

Still, it’s unclear if that will translate to legislative action. Last year, bills promoting a well-regarded program known as National Board Certification were never discussed despite strong support from the Indiana State Teachers Association and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.


ISTEP dominated conversation during last year’s legislative session. The biggest complaint was that the test was too long. But others key legislators also pushed controversial bills to get rid of the state test altogether. It failed, but the question was added to the committee’s work to study.

Going into next year’s session, not much will change — expect more study, more debate and, likely, no differences how the scores are used to rate schools.

Two proposals to suspend using ISTEP scores for school A-F letter grades failed in close 5-6 votes and were not included in the final recommendations. Ritz has supported such proposals given new standards implemented in 2014-15 and big changes to ISTEP, but the Indiana State Board of Education and Republican lawmakers have resisted.

Instead, the recommendations call for a survey on test length to see how much time kids actually spend on tests throughout the year.

Lawmakers also approved two ideas to study if more ISTEP questions should be released once the exams have been given (in addition to those already required by state law) so parents, kids and teachers know more about what to expect from the test.

Legislators also passed a recommendation to have the state board require ISTEP scores be delivered to the board by July 1 so schools have more time to evaluate them. Typically, the board receives scores in late summer, but in the past few years, problems with grading and questions about test validity have held things up.

“It takes some time to grade the written, component, and that can’t be done electronically,” Rep. Bob Behning said. “If they had the results by mid-June, (schools) could do something with it. Coming back later … especially teacher evaluation, when it gets later than that, it starts to complicate a lot of their decision-making.”

A failed, last-minute recommendation from Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, would’ve let schools decide for themselves whether they want to take ISTEP or any national test, such as the SAT or ACT.

But that raised concerns that different tests across districts would make comparing schools, rating teachers and deciding on school A-to-F grades very complicated and the recommendation was struck down before it even came up for a vote.

If you can’t see the Storify below, find it here.

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